The Conservatives in Brighton: Howard fires 27 shots at crime: Ministers fight for survival behind right-wing agenda as Thatcher seeks eternal war against socialism

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The Independent Online
THE RIGHT of silence is to be removed, the Home Secretary told the Conservative Party conference yesterday. Michael Howard announced a 27-point law and order package which will clamp down on young offenders and lead to more criminals being jailed.

Mr Howard, who is aiming to restore grassroots support for the Government and tackle public fears over rising crime, described the measures as 'the most comprehensive programme of action against crime' announced by a Home Secretary.

His performance was rewarded with a pat on the back from John Major. Cabinet colleagues said the Prime Minister would use this Thatcherite law and order package - delivered by the most right wing Home Secretary since the Tories came to power in 1979 - to reassert his leadership authority.

Many of the proposals will be included in a wide-ranging Criminal Justice Bill, which will dominate the next session of Parliament; other legislation may be needed for measures on terrorism and jury and witness intimidation. The most contentious issue, the removal of the right to silence, may not require legislation because the principle is not written in statute.

The package includes ending the presumption in favour of bail; doubling to two years the maximum sentence in young offender institutions; setting up training centres for offenders aged 12-14; creating two new terrorist offences; and inviting the private sector to build and run six new prisons to take an expected increase in prisoners.

The Home Secretary earned an enthusiastic standing ovation from the packed Winter Gardens hall in Blackpool which had earlier heard appeals for the return of the death penalty and for young offenders to be birched.

Mr Howard told representatives: 'Let's take the handcuffs off the police and put them on the criminals where they belong.'

Announcing that community sentences would be toughened, he added: 'Yobs who break the law shouldn't be taken on holidays abroad . . . let's get them pick

ing up litter and scrubbing off


Despite recent warnings that such proposals would lead to prison overcrowding and the conditions that sparked the Strangeways riot, Mr Howard said he was making no apologies for any increase in prisoners. Home Office sources confirmed military camps could be reopened if needed.

The proposals were applauded by the police, who also welcomed his acceptance of all 16 recommendations of an unpublished report on cutting paperwork. But the measures were condemned by opposition parties, reform groups and lawyers as an erosion of civil liberties and a 'hangers' and floggers' charter'.

Sir Edward Heath, the former prime minister, said the 300 year- old right to silence should be retained. 'There was nothing in the Home Secretary's speech to deal with the prevention of crime . . . Pleasing people at this conference is not the same as winning back the country.'

And Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary and a former Home Secretary, is said to be concerned that the Government's emphasis on imprisonment has overturned recent criminal justice policy.

Lord Runciman, who headed the Royal Commission set up in the wake of a series of miscarriages of justice, which recommended the retention of the right to silence, warned last night that its removal might lead to more injustice. Mr Howard's only concession to concerns over injustice was the setting up of an independent body to investigate wrongful convictions, one of the commission's principal recommendations.

Accusing Mr Howard of 'gimmicks', Tony Blair, the Labour home affairs spokesman, said last night: 'The measures will not deal with the appalling levels of crime in our society.'

Mr Howard is still considering further proposals on the removal of the right to a jury trial, formal plea bargaining and advance defence disclosure. He may run into even more formidable opposition - Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, warned that ending the right to trial by jury, enshrined in Magna Carta, could be 'socially devisive'.

Not all the reforms were criticised by lawyers. Robert Seabrook QC, vice-chairman of the Bar Council, welcomed greater attention to victims' views and said abolishing the need for corroboration of women's evidence in rape cases was a step forward.


Abolition of right to silence

New body to investigate miscarriages of justice

Tougher restrictions on granting bail; improved police bail procedures

Maximum one-year sentence in young offender institutions to be doubled

New secure centres for persistent offenders aged 12 to 14

Review aimed at toughening sentences in the community

Two new terrorism offences and improved police powers to establish roadblocks

New powers for police to take DNA samples from all offenders

New offence of witness intimidation and retrials in jury 'nobbling' cases

Extending right of appeal over lenient sentences to all serious violent and sexual offences

(Photograph omitted)